Choosing Chengdu – Insights From Hamer Scholar Jason Cheetham

Jason Cheetham outside Sichuan University in Chengdu (Supplied)

China is a vast and diverse country, so vast in fact, the task of choosing an ideal study location is made particularly difficult. From the famouly picturesque south-western province of Yunnan, to the icy northern region of Heilongjiang, there’s sure to be something for everyone. 

Having just completed his Masters of Media at RMIT University, the 27-year-old Jason Cheetham was looking for a six month overseas stint to bolster his Chinese language skills, before returning to Victoria to work. When he started to narrow down his options, he was looking to be challenged, and to have an experience different from his previous three-months spent in Beijing. 

Jason commented, “I think it’s important to go and be in an environment I might be a bit uncomfortable in, and learn something new about myself and the world… All of my Chinese friends in China said that Chengdu has this very particular culture, a culture of its own, so that’s where I went.”

Chunxi Road is a bustling pedestrian street in Chengdu’s city centre. (Supplied)

A Culture Of Its Own

Located 1500km from Beijing and nearly 2000km from Shanghai, Chengdu is a Chinese regional capital city nestled in the evergreen province of Sichuan. While Beijing and Shanghai are often at the top of people’s list of destinations for the many working opportunities and notable tourist attractions, Jason affirms that if you’re willing to put up with the tricky local dialect, choosing a less common option like Chengdu can have real benefits to your Chinese language learning, “Beijing is more international, everybody has some sort of comfort with English, or experience speaking with foreigners. I don’t think any store or any restaurant ever spoke English to me in Chengdu, and that meant I was practicing everywhere I went. My Chinese is certainly not good enough to be able to just comfortably be speaking fluently, so it put me out of my comfort zone which meant that I learnt faster.” 

River channels cut through the city. (Supplied)

Traditionally Sichuan carries a reputation for its red hot delicacies: hot pot (火锅), Chongqing noodles (小面), spicy tofu (麻婆豆腐) and a host of other options certain to scald your tastebuds. 

More than 2,000 years ago Chengdu was a crucial westward stepping stone on China’s Silk Road to Europe. It was then that the city became known as the ‘land of abundance’ (天府之国), with its fertile flatlands and humid climate helping the region flourish. Now a city of more than 16 million, urbanisation hasn’t stripped it of it’s green charm. Cycle two kilometres in any direction, and you’ll likely find a verdant garden, one of many in the city, filled with tea-sipping locals playing mahjong beneath bamboo shade. These riverside tea gardens, such as Wangjiang Park next to Sichuan University,  helped the ‘Du earn its reputation as China’s most laid back city.

Mahjong is a popular pastime in Chengdu’s many tea gardens. (Supplied)

Another aspect of the unique environment Jason found, was a thriving youth culture, “There’s a huge night life that is very open, and progressive, and also has a lot of links to underground culture, like Hip Hop, and it was cool to explore that… you can have a great night out at the 339 night club district below the city’s TV tower, and eat delicious street food at any time of night.”

Chinese Hip Hop has emerged over the last few years, with its biggest export, the Higher Brothers, having close ties to the city of Chengdu. Their success was due in large part to a growing Hip Hop scene in the city, with clubs like Nox playing local and international favourites. Whilst its title as the queer capital of China remains a point of contention, .TAG nightclub hosts regular gay events, pulling in renowned artists from around the globe.

And, of course, you can’t see Chengdu without visiting the Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. It lives up to every bit of the hype, and if you’re lucky, you’ll see the baby pandas play-fighting.    

Chengdu’s Panda Base is world renowned. (Supplied)

Opportunities for Australians

Subject to Coronavirus travel restrictions, there is a wealth of opportunities for Australians to work and travel in Chengdu.  The Confucius Institute Scholarship is open to all students from 18 to 30 years-old, with programs ranging from two weeks to a year. The Confucius Institute is connected to universities across China, including several in Chengdu.  If you’re a Victorian, the Hamer Scholarship is another avenue worth considering. Supported by the Victorian Government, the Hamer Scholarship is designed for early career professionals, providing a generous stipend and support to travel to Chengdu to develop language and intercultural skills. The opportunity allowed him to spend six months in the city, learning Mandarin daily at Sichuan University and building lifelong connections. In addition, Jason says the scholarship was the perfect opportunity to gain skills in an emerging market, “I make media and films, I’ve always been very interested in the Chinese market here in Victoria, which often doesn’t get recognised but there’s obviously huge potential.”

Jason enjoying local hot pot with friends. (Supplied)

The Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK), is the internationally recognised test for proficiency in Chinese as a second language, with levels ranging from 1-6 on a scale of difficulty.  Wishing to put his hard work to the test before coming home, he sat the HSK 4 and passed, exceeding his personal expectations. Now back in Melbourne, Jason’s found a way to fuse his passion for media and China in his spare time, creating videos with a Chinese friend in Mandarin. 

For more information, and to start making connections in the city, check out these WeChat groups: ACYA National, Australian Consulate General in Chengdu Group, ACYA Chengdu, Asia Options China Group.

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